Abstract: Iron Muse: The Pictorial Legacy of the Transcontinental Railroad

Glenn Willumson


The Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) was the first corporation to systematically build a corporate photographic archive. My paper will use the example of the photographs of its construction of the first transcontinental railroad (1865-1869) to examine the ways in which photography was used in the mid-nineteenth century to further corporate desires. The creation of the CPRR's photographic record was not a simple process. It involved negotiation between photographer, patron, and audience. The CPRR used their photographs to assess progress, to demonstrate success to distant audiences, to entice investors, to secure government subsidies, and to frame their project in grand, nationalistic terms. The visual representation of the archive attests to the ways in which the railroad imagery actively ensured success and framed the project as a redemptive national effort after the destruction of the American Civil War.